The outbreak of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has now been confirmed as a worldwide pandemic. The World Health Organization has declared that this is a public health emergency of international concern. As at time of writing, in Singapore, authorities have declared the situation is at a DORSCON (Disease Outbreak Response System Condition) Orange level. Understandably, this may be creating great concern and unrest for you and amongst your workforce. Below we answer some key questions to clarify employers' legal obligations and support you in protecting your business and people.
What are employers' obligations in respect of COVID-19?
The Tripartite partners (the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation) have issued several guidelines on the measures employers should adopt in the workplace. Such measures include reminding employees to practice social responsibility by observing good personal hygiene, to monitor their health (by way of temperature checks at least twice a day), and encouraging employees to visit the doctor immediately if they are unwell.
Employers should obtain a health and travel declaration from their employees on whether they have travelled to mainland China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, ASEAN countries, Japan, Switzerland or the United Kingdom recently, or if they have any upcoming overseas travel plans. However, employers should be mindful that the collection of this data will be subject to data protection obligations discussed further below.
The Tripartite Partners have also advised employers to set clear HR policies regarding employees who travel outside of Singapore. Such HR policies may include, the implementation of company-imposed Leave of Absence from work not exceeding 14 days. However, employers must communicate and explain such HR policies to their employees before implementing such initiatives. During such a Leave of Absence, employers may adopt flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting and teleconferencing to allow them to work from home.
Employers are obligated to review all work-related travel plans and defer all non-essential travel. If work-related travel cannot be avoided, employers must ensure that the health of employees is sufficiently protected.
Employers are expected to provide additional paid leave to employees who travel for work, to cover: a quarantine or self-isolation period, delay of the employee's return to Singapore due to issues such as flight availability and/or need for MOM approval before entry to Singapore, mandatory Stay Home Notice (SHN) or company-LOA.
Importantly, employers must respect an employee's request not to go on work-related travel and should not penalise an employee on this basis.
Employers are also advised to cancel or defer non-essential large scale events with 250 participants or more. Employers that choose to proceed should consider taking additional precautions such as: carrying out temperature screening, actively reminding participants not to attend if they have recent travel history to the countries identified by MOM, ensuring that the venue is properly ventilated, reducing the overall crowd size, increasing the frequency of cleaning and maintaining a list of participants for the event.
Employers should regularly check the MOM and Ministry of Health (MOH) website to ensure that their practices in dealing with COVID-19 remain relevant during this time.
Can employers request or require information from an employee about potential or actual exposure to the virus?
In Singapore, employers can collect information from an employee about potential or actual exposure to the virus without the employee's consent. The Personal Data Protection Commission ("PDPC") has issued an Advisory on Collection of Personal Data for Covid-19 Contact Tracing, which is summarised below:
- Relevant personal data (including NRIC/FIN/passport numbers) can be collected, used and disclosed without consent for the purpose of carrying out contact tracing and other response measures.
- Consent is not required as such personal data are necessary to respond to an emergency that threatens the life, health or safety of other individuals ("Emergency Consent Exception").
- Employers that collect such personal data must nonetheless comply with the data protection obligations under the PDPA (e.g. ensuring reasonable security arrangements are in place and that the personal data will not be used for other purposes without the consent of the data subject or permitted under law).
Employers can also collect personal data of visitors to their offices without obtaining consent, pursuant to the Emergency Consent Exception.
In contrast, employers may also face situations where a third party (e.g. customers/clients) requests travel or health information of their staff. Unless there is a clear legal obligation on the employer's part to disclose the personal data or unless the Emergency Consent Exception applies, the employer should not share such information with third parties without the employee's consent.
What should employers do if an employee is absent or infected?
In the event of a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the workplace, employers should cooperate with the contact tracing officers from the MOH, by providing them with any necessary assistance. Employers should also adopt precautionary measures to vacate or cordon-off the section of the work place where the employee who has a confirmed case of COVID-19 was working. The employer should also carry out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the workplace premises.
If an employee is absent due to a Leave of Absence or Stay-Home Notice, employers must ensure that employees stay away from the workplace. During such a period, employers may adopt flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting and teleconferencing to allow them to work from home.
Employees who are absent due to a Home Quarantine Order will be deemed to be on paid hospitalisation leave for the duration of the Order.
What are employers' obligations where offices are partially or fully closed?
As at time of writing, there are no recommendations for employers to close offices due to suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The updated Tripartite Advisory on Managing Excess Manpower and Responsible Retrenchment provide that companies may consider implementing a Flexible Work Schedule (FWS), flexible work arrangements, shorter work-week or temporary lay-off so that employees are assured of a stable monthly income in view of the COVID-19 situation.
With effect from 12 March 2020, employers are required to notify the MOM if they implement any cost-saving measures which affect the employee's monthly salaries and show that they have done so fairly. This requirement applies to employers with 10 or more employees.
Where can employers and employees access local and national advice?
Employers and employees can refer to the FAQs on COVID-19 section on the MOM website, the Updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) section on the MOH website and Updates on the COVID-19 situation section on Gov.sg.
This article is produced by our Singapore office, Bird & Bird ATMD LLP, and does not constitute legal advice. It is intended to provide general information only. Please note that the information in this article is accurate as of 18 March 2020. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates on any changes as soon as these are communicated to us. Please contact our lawyers if you have any specific queries.
Last reviewed 18 March 2020